An introduction to a classic play
The plot of Sophocles’ great tragedy Oedipus the King (sometimes known as Oedipus Rex or Oedipus Tyrannos) has long been admired. In his Poetics, Aristotle held it up as the exemplary Greek tragedy. Samuel Taylor Coleridge called it one of the three perfect plots in all of literature (the other two being Ben Jonson’s The Alchemist and Henry Fielding’s Tom Jones). Oedipus the King might also be called the first detective story in Western literature. Yet how well do we know Sophocles’ play? And what does a closer analysis of its plot features and themes reveal?
Michael Patterson, in The Oxford Guide to Plays (Oxford Quick Reference), calls Oedipus the King ‘a model of analytic plot structure’. So it’s worth briefly recounting the plot of Sophocles’ play in a short summary. The city of Thebes is in the grip of a terrible plague. The city’s king, Oedipus, sends Creon to consult the Delphic oracle, who announces that if the city rids itself of a murderer, the plague will disappear. The murderer in question is the unknown killer of the city’s previous king, Laius. Oedipus adopts a sort of detective role, and endeavours to sniff out the murderer. He himself is plagued by another prophecy: that he would one day kill his father and marry his mother. He thinks he’s managed to thwart the prophecy by leaving home – and his parents – back in Corinth. On his way from Corinth to Thebes, he had an altercation with a man on the road: neither party would back down to let the other past, and Oedipus ended up killing the man in perhaps Western literature’s first instance of road rage. Then Oedipus learns that his ‘father’ back in Corinth was not his biological parent: he was adopted after his ‘real’ parents left him for dead on a hillside, and he was rescued by a kindly shepherd who rescued him, took the child in, and raised him as his own. (The name Oedipus is Greek for ‘swollen foot’, from the chains put through the infant’s feet when it was left on the mountain.)
Tiresias the seer then reveals that the man Oedipus killed on the road was Laius – the former king of Thebes and (shock horror! Twist!) Oedipus’ biological father. Laius’ widow, Jocasta, is Oedipus’ own mother – and the woman Oedipus had married upon his arrival in Thebes. When this terrible truth is revealed, Jocasta hangs herself, and Oedipus puts out his own eyes and leaves Thebes, going into self-imposed exile so he can free the Thebans from the plague.
This much constitutes a brief recap or summary of the plot of Oedipus the King. How we should interpret and analyse its use of prophecy and Oedipus’ own culpability, however, remains a less clear-cut matter. Is Oedipus to blame for what happens to him? Or is he simply a pawn of the gods and fates, to be used according to their whim? The answer should probably be ‘a bit of both’. Prophecies are bound up with fate, with things being predetermined. But there are obviously different ways of making them come true. In the David Gemmell novel, Stormrider: (The Rigante Book 4), the villain Winter Kay is told that he will be killed by ‘the one with the golden eye’. Thinking this refers to a particular man (who has one green and one golden eye), Winter Kay sets about trying to assassinate this imagined nemesis, and fails at every turn. Eventually, the nemesis can take no more and raises an army against Winter Kay. One of his soldiers, bearing a golden badge that resembles an eye in shape, is the one who kills Winter Kay in battle. In his dying moments, the hapless villain realises that, in seeking to avert the prophecy, he had, in fact, helped it to come true.
This is similar to the story of Oedipus the King. Oedipus heard the prophecy that he would one day murder his father and marry his mother, and so fled from his presumed parents so as to avoid fulfilling the prophecy. Such an act seems noble and it was jolly bad luck that fate had decreed that Oedipus would turn out to be a foundling and his real parents were still out there for him to bump into. But what is clever about Sophocles’ dramatising of the myth is the way he introduces little details which reveal Oedipus’ character. The clues were already there that Oedipus was actually adopted: when he received the prophecy from the oracle, a drunk told him as much. But because the man was drunk, Oedipus didn’t believe him. But, as the Latin phrase has it, in vino veritas. Then, it is Oedipus’ hubris, his pride, that contributes to the altercation on the road between him and Laius, the man who turns out to be his real father: if Oedipus was less stubborn, he would have played the bigger man and stepped aside to let Laius pass.
What does all this mean, when we stop and analyse it in terms of the interplay between fate and personal actions in Oedipus the King? It means that Sophocles was aware of something which governs all our lives. Call it ‘karma’ if you will, or fate, but it works even if we remove the supernatural framework into which the action of Oedipus the King is placed. Our actions have consequences, but that doesn’t mean that a particular action will lead to a particular consequence: it means that one action might cause something quite different to happen, which will nevertheless be linked in some way to our lives. A thief steals your wallet and you never see him, or your wallet, again. Did the criminal get away with it? Maybe. Or maybe his habit of taking an intrusive interest in other people’s wallets will lead him, somewhere down the line, to getting what the ancient Greeks didn’t call ‘his comeuppance’. He wasn’t punished for pilfering your possessions, but he will nevertheless receive his just deserts. Oedipus kills Laius because he is a stubborn and angry man; in his anger and pride, he allows himself to forget the prophecy (or to believe himself safe if he kills this man who definitely isn’t his father, no way), and to kill another man. That one event will set in motion a chain of events that will see him married to his mother, the city over which he rules in the grip of plague, and – ultimately – Oedipus blinded and his wife/mother hanged.
Or perhaps that’s to impose a modern reading onto a classical text which Sophocles himself would not recognise. Yet works of art are always opening themselves up to new readings which see them reflecting our changing and evolving moral beliefs, and that is perhaps why Oedipus the King remains a great play to read, watch, analyse, and discuss. There remains something unsettling about its plot structure and its ambiguous meaning, and that is what lends it its power.
Image: Oedipus and the Sphinx of Thebes (author: Carole Raddato), Wikimedia Commons.
Aristotle considered Oedipus Tyrannus the supreme example of tragic drama and modeled his theory of tragedy on it. He mentions the play no fewer than eleven times in his De poetica (c. 334-323 b.c.e.; Poetics, 1705). Sigmund Freud in the twentieth century used the story to name the rivalry of male children with their fathers for the affection of their mothers, and Jean Cocteau adapted the tale to the modern stage in La Machine infernale (1934; The Infernal Machine, 1936). However, no matter what changes the Oedipus myth underwent in two and a half millennia, the finest expression of it remains this tragedy by Sophocles.
Brilliantly conceived and written, Oedipus Tyrannus is a drama of self-discovery. Sophocles achieves an amazing compression and force by limiting the dramatic action to the day on which Oedipus learns the true nature of his birth and his destiny. The fact that the audience knows the dark secret that Oedipus unwittingly slew his true father and married his mother does nothing to destroy the suspense. Oedipus’s search for the truth has all the tautness of a detective tale, and yet because audiences already know the truth they are aware of all the ironies in which Oedipus is enmeshed. That knowledge enables them to fear the final revelation at the same time that they pity the man whose past is gradually and relentlessly uncovered to him.
The plot is thoroughly integrated with the characterization of Oedipus, for it is he who impels the action forward in his concern for Thebes, his personal rashness, and his ignorance of his past. His flaws are a hot temper and impulsiveness, but without those traits his heroic course of self-discovery would never occur.
Fate for Sophocles is not something essentially external to human beings but something at once inherent in them and transcendent. Oracles and prophets in this play may show the will of the gods and indicate future events, but it is the individual who gives substance to the prophecies. Moreover, there is an element of freedom granted to human beings, an ability to choose, where the compulsions of character and the compulsions of the gods are powerless. It is in the way individuals meet the necessities of their destiny that freedom lies. They can succumb to fate, pleading extenuating circumstances, or they can shoulder the full responsibility for what they do. In the first case they are merely pitiful, but in the second they are tragic and take on a greatness of soul that nothing can conquer.
A crucial point in the play is that Oedipus is entirely unaware that he killed his father and wedded his mother. He himself is the cause of the plague on Thebes, and in vowing to find the murderer of Laius and exile him he unconsciously pronounces judgment on himself. Oedipus, the king and the hero who saved Thebes from the Sphinx, believes in his own innocence. He is angry and incredulous when the provoked Teiresias accuses him of the crime, so he jumps to the conclusion that Teiresias and Creon are conspirators against him. As plausible as that explanation may be, Oedipus maintains it with irrational vehemence, not even bothering to investigate it before he decides to have Creon put to death. Every act of his is performed rashly: his hot-tempered killing of Laius, his investigation of the murder, his violent blinding of himself, and his insistence on being exiled. He is a man of great pride and passion who is intent on serving Thebes, but he does not have tragic stature until the evidence of his guilt begins to accumulate.
Ironically, his past is revealed to him by people who wish him well and who want to reassure him. Each time a character tries to comfort him with information, the information serves to damn him more thoroughly. Jocasta, in proving how false oracles can be, first suggests to him that he unknowingly really did kill Laius, thus corroborating the oracles. The messenger from Corinth in reassuring Oedipus about his parentage brings his true parentage into question, but he says enough to convince Jocasta that Oedipus is her son. It is at this point, when he determines to complete the search for the truth, knowing that he killed Laius and knowing that the result of his investigation may be utterly damnable, that Oedipus’s true heroism starts to emerge. His rashness at this point is no longer a liability but becomes part of his integrity.
Learning the full truth of his dark destiny, his last act as king is to blind himself over the dead body of Jocasta, his wife and his mother. It is a terrible, agonizing moment, even in description, but in the depths of his pain Oedipus is magnificent. He does not submit passively to his woe or plead that he committed his foul acts in ignorance, though he could be justified in doing so. He blinds himself in a rage of penitence, accepting total responsibility for what he did and determined to take the punishment of exile as well. As piteous as he appears in the final scene with Creon, there is more public spirit and more strength in his fierce grief and his resolution of exile than in any other tragic hero in the history of the theater. Oedipus unravels his life to its utmost limits of agony and finds there an unsurpassed grandeur of soul.